At the Breakthrough Prizes, Silicon Valley Puts Scientists in the Spotlight

Every year in December, a makeshift hangar at the NASA Ames Research Center pops up for one night, transforming the austere airfield into a glitzy, paparazzi’d, black velvet-roped Nerd Prom. At the Breakthrough Prizes—where on December 3, a total of $22 million was handed out to pioneers in math, physics, and the life sciences—researchers traded lab coats and latex gloves for floor-length gowns and bow-tied tuxedos. Outside it was all barbed wire and cold steel, but on the red carpet, stars and scientists alike sweated under the bright white lights and flash of cameras.

“My lab is going to be totally shocked to see me like this,” said Joanne Chory, a plant geneticist at the Salk Institute in San Diego and the only female awardee at Sunday’s prize ceremony, as she sparkled in a pink sequined shift with matching metal glasses frames. The winners, all 12 of them, had been under strict instructions not to tell any of their colleagues before hopping on planes and flying in for the event. But as the clock struck 4:30pm Pacific Time, and news began to get out, the emails started flooding in. David Spergel, a theoretical physicist at Princeton, was one of five members of the universe-cataloguing WMAP team to win the prize in physics. “There are five of us here being recognized, but 20 more on our team who just found out, they’re absolutely thrilled.”

The Nobels may be more prestigious than the Breakthroughs, but they come with a lot less money (about $2 million less, per prize). Alfred Nobel, whose fortune in the dynamite industry financed the namesake prize, hoped it might atone for his explosive contributions to science. But that isn’t the only thing that has embroiled the award in controversy from the very start. His will instructed that each prize could be awarded to only one person, only for discoveries made the preceding year, and oh, yeah, no mathematicians. While the committee tasked with carrying out his dying wishes has relaxed some of the rules over the years, the underlying framework still upholds the absurd notion that scientific advancement arrives on the back of lone geniuses.

The Breakthrough Prize was supposed to fix all that—with a spirit of inclusivity, optimism, and shiny Silicon Valley cash. Much of that prize money comes from Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire tech investor who set up and financed the first award before convincing execs at Facebook, Google, 23andMe, and Alibaba to chip in more. (Since 2012, they’ve together awarded more than 70 $3 million prizes to research standouts.) But when the Paradise Papers were made public in early November, they revealed that behind Milner’s investments in Facebook and Twitter were hundreds of millions of dollars traced back to the Kremlin.

The Valley’s other oligarchs—Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Sundar Pichai, Jack Dorsey—have also come under fire for their platforms’ complicity in spreading Russian misinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign. In October, the tech titans took a bipartisan beating on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress excoriated Facebook, Twitter, and Google for enabling Russian attempts to divide the American electorate and sow doubt in the democratic process.

The ensuing tech backlash is hitting hardest in Washington, where talk of regulation and anti-trust lawsuits have ticked up in recent months. In the nation’s capital, the corporate leviathans once seen as beacons of new American enterprise are increasingly portrayed as sinister centers of power, too big to be accountable. These revelations and transformations can’t help but change the perception of the wealth backing the various Breakthroughs. Perhaps anticipating this line of questioning, the event’s tech royalty were noticeably silent this year. Only Dick Costolo, previously of Twitter, braved the media corral, saying only that he was happy to be at an event that “puts scientists front and center.” Brin declined questions, as did Milner, who barely cracked a close-mouthed smile for the cameras. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan were no-shows, though Zuck did send in a grey-hoodied video greeting that played during the award ceremony. Cori Bargmann was present, the lone, in-person representative from the couple’s philanthropic organization, CZI. This marked a striking comparison to last year, said one of the male reporters in the pool, who had found Milner an entertaining interview in 2016. “If I had known it was going to be like this, I don’t think I would have come,” he said.

With Silicon Valley’s luminaries sticking to the sidelines, it was perhaps Gavin Newsom, California’s Lieutenant Governor, who captured the moment best: “We are celebrating tonight everything that Trump’s Washington is not: facts, science, innovation, entrepreneurialism,” he said “It’s important that we show here in California that we are committed to investing in that.”

And at least for the winning scientists, the award has not yet been tainted by the backlash or the current political climate. Chory says she didn’t think twice about accepting. She’s planning to give most of the money to her kids, so that they can pay back student loan debts and buy houses. But at least a sizeable chunk will go toward turning her research into a global reality. Despite her daily battle with Parkinson’s, Chory has spent the last three decades in the lab genetically engineering crop plants like chickpeas and lentils that can pull 20 times the average amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it as a cork-like polymer deep underground.

What’s next is scaling up to the planetary level. She’s calculated that converting just 5 percent of the world’s cropland to her plants could get rid of half of global CO2 emissions. But financing field trials and seed production and distribution and farmer outreach is beyond the scope of most basic research funding mechanisms. Which is why she’s hoping the prize money will give her initiative a jump-start to bring in other grants and investors. “I’ll do my best to milk it as best I can,” says Chory, who figures the total cost for launching the project hovers around what Milner paid for his $100 million mansion, located just up the hill from the Ames red carpet. She says she appreciates being recognized, and a reason to go shopping with her family. But while she was happy to attend the evening with her kids, she’s focused on doing something to make the world they’ll inherit a less dangerous place. “I’m trying to do something now for humankind, not just to please by brain or follow a scientific curiosity. I don’t want to leave a crappy planet as my legacy.”

Bargmann, who was on this year’s selection committee for the life sciences, said the prize was, to her, as much about the future, as about moments in the past that changed science forever. “We’re honoring people tonight who totally changed a field; it was one way before they came along, and something totally different afterward.”

For the chromosome theory of human genetic inheritance, i.e. how you got the genes you got, that was Kim Nasmyth, a biochemist from Oxford who figured out how chromosomes separate during mitosis. He thought about brushing off his old wool tuxedo for the event, but ultimately opted for something newer, and less warm. In his lapel he wore a gold pin with a white cross on a red shield—a gift from the city of Vienna, where he used to work. “It’s the only piece of jewelry I own,” he said. “I thought I might as well wear it.”

While he’s thrilled to receive the award, and pay some of the money forward to a foundation that will support the next generation of scientists, he says that recognition should never be the goal of a good researcher. “Ultimately, when you get out of bed in the morning, you just want to know, to understand,” he says. “I think what drives discoveries are the mysteries that can’t be explained.”

Here’s a complete list of this year’s Breakthrough Prize Winners

Life Sciences
(Each of the five Life Science winners will receive a $3 million prize.)

  • Joanne Chory, a molecular plant biologist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for deciphering how plants optimize their growth, development, and cellular structure to transform sunlight into energy.
  • Don W. Cleveland, a neurobiologist at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at the University of California, San Diego, for elucidating the molecular mechanisms behind a type of inherited Lou Gehrig's disease, including the role of glia in neurodegeneration.
  • Kim Nasmyth, a molecular biologist at the University of Oxford for figuring out how chromosomes separate during cell division, the most dramatic event in the life of a cell.
  • Kazutoshi Mori, a structural biologist at Kyoto University and Peter Walter, a biochemist at the University of California, San Francisco, were each recognized for their separate discoveries of a cellular quality-control system that detects disease-causing unfolded proteins and directs cells to take corrective measures.

Fundamental Physics
(The five winners received a single, $3 million prize, which they will share with the entire WMAP science mission team.)

Charles L. Bennett, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins; Gary Hinshaw, an astrophysicist at the University of British of Columbia; Norman Jarosik, a physicist at Princeton; Lyman Page Jr., a physicist at Princeton; and, David N. Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton, for their work building detailed maps of the early universe that redefined the evolution of the cosmos and the fluctuations that seeded the formation of galaxies.

Mathematics
(The two winners will equally share a $3 million prize.)

Christopher Hacon, a mathematician at the University of Utah, and James McKernan, a mathematician at the University of California, San Diego, for their transformational contributions to birational algebraic geometry, especially to the minimal model program in all dimensions.

Read more: https://www.wired.com/story/at-the-breakthrough-prizes-silicon-valley-puts-scientists-in-the-spotlight/

‘I see things differently’: James Damore on his autism and the Google memo

He was fired from Google for arguing that men may be more suited to working in tech than women. Now James Damore opens up about his regrets and how autism may have shaped his experience of the world

James Damore conforms to the stereotype. Hes happy to admit he fits the mould of an awkward computer nerd and the moment we meet in a Silicon Valley coffee shop, he knocks a display stand of metal flasks that fall clattering to the floor. The commotion draws curious glances at the 6ft 3in software engineer, but Damore is used to strangers identifying him; hes the guy who was fired by Google this summer after he argued that men are more psychologically suited to working in technology than women.

No one recognises the woman standing beside him. She is Damores girlfriend: a feminist and a data scientist who works in tech.

The couple make a surprising pair, as I discovered when we sat down and talked about some of the issues they usually avoid: the gender pay gap, whether boys are more suited to board games than girls, and the 10-page memo that turned Damore, almost overnight, into a pariah in their industry.

The document he circulated, titled Googles Ideological Echo Chamber, argued that psychological gender differences could explain why 80% of Googles engineers, and most of the companys leaders, are men. In one of the most inflammatory sections, Damore wrote that women, on average, have higher levels of neuroticism, something that may contribute to the lower number of women in high stress jobs. The purpose of the memo, he said, was to question Googles approach to improving diversity, and to argue that the companys leftwing bias silences alternative views.

On 7 August, two days after his memo was leaked, Damore was fired for advancing harmful gender stereotypes. I definitely didnt think that it would explode like it did, the 28-year-old says now. I lost a lot of sleep and didnt eat much.

We are in Mountain View, home to Googles headquarters. Damores girlfriend has agreed to meet only after being assured that, like her, I disagree with her boyfriends views. She does not want to be identified or directly quoted: she is keen to remain in the shadows. Damore, meanwhile, has appeared to bask in the attention; in the months since he left Google, he has become a commentator on political issues that extend well beyond the tech industry, becoming one of the most polarising figures in Silicon Valley.

At the same time, the experience has prompted some introspection. In the course of several weeks of conversation using Googles instant messaging service, which Damore prefers to face-to-face communication, he opened up about an autism diagnosis that may in part explain the difficulties he experienced with his memo.

He believes he has a problem understanding how his words will be interpreted by other people. Even now, still out of work and coming to the conclusion he has in effect been blacklisted from any major tech company, Damore finds it hard to comprehend how his opinions sparked such intense controversy. My biggest flaw and strength may be that I see things very differently than normal, he tells me. Im not necessarily the best at predicting what would be controversial.

Words were never James Damores strong suit. As a child growing up in Romeoville, a suburb of Chicago, he took longer than usual to speak in complete sentences. His parents were concerned; it was several years before they discovered that their sons verbal difficulties were accompanied by some extraordinary talents.

By the age of about 11, Damore was coding adventure games on his TI-83 calculator. He also discovered chess. Within a year he was able to compete in four games of chess simultaneously while wearing a blindfold. He came second in a national chess tournament at 14, and in his teens became the worlds highest-ranking player in Rise of Nations, a computer strategy game.

It wasnt until his mid-20s, after completing research in computational biology at Princeton and MIT, and starting a PhD at Harvard, that Damore was diagnosed with autism, although he was told he had a milder version of the condition known as high-functioning autism.

Psychiatrists, he says, assured him it didnt matter. Yet one incident around that time suggests otherwise. Damore was on a two-day retreat for PhD students, which involved an annual tradition of inviting students to perform skits that lightly poked fun at professors. Damores performance included an awkwardly delivered masturbation joke that offended some female students. Two professors later wrote to students apologising for the uneasiness, embarrassment or offense he had caused. Damore still finds it hard to see why his skit was objectionable, but accepts he may view it differently, because Im on the spectrum.

I ask if he finds interacting with people difficult. He replies: Its hard for me to say whats difficult because I dont know what the average is. But he finds small talk tiring and can see behavioural traits in himself that may be linked to the condition, such as having fewer friends due to maybe social awkwardness.

It was Damores outstanding performance in coding puzzles that attracted Google recruiters. He was offered a summer internship on a salary of more than $100,000 and, in December 2013, dropped out of Harvard to join the tech giants army of 25,000 mostly male engineers.

Damore excelled at Google. His performance reviews were excellent, and he was promoted twice in two years. By early 2017, he was a senior engineer at the company, helping lead projects related to Googles search engine. It is a role that, once stock is taken into account, can come with a salary of as much as $300,000. Then in June, on a work flight to China, Damore opened his laptop and started typing. Google has several biases and honest discussion about these biases is being silenced by the dominant ideology, he wrote. What follows is by no means the complete story, but its a perspective that desperately needs to be told.

The idea that any employee can challenge company orthodoxy is important in Silicon Valley, which eschews the hierarchies that dominate in other parts of corporate America. Nowhere is this more the case than Google, which cultivates open debate on thousands of internal discussion groups and online forums. Google also vigorously promotes a culture of psychological safety among its staff, believing it imperative that employees feel empowered to voice ideas without feeling embarrassed or judged.

Company insiders say most employees are savvy enough to know it is unwise to take that mantra too literally. But when the organisers of internal meetings about Googles policies on diversity and inclusion invited feedback, Damore decided to relay his thoughts.

For some months, he had been harbouring grievances over the way Google was seeking to increase the number of minority and women employees, with mentoring schemes and hiring practices that Damore felt could be tantamount to reverse discrimination.

Sundar
Sundar Pichai, Googles chief executive, said Damores memo violated the companys code of conduct. Photograph: Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

He had also been doing a lot of personal research about politics. He knew he was a centrist with libertarian inclinations but, he tells me, he wanted to understand the world and why people seem to have such different perspectives and opinions.

He had been reading writers such as Jonathan Haidt, the psychologist who argues peoples political beliefs derive not from reason but from their instincts and intuitions, and says more effort should be put into understanding opposing views. Damore also read more about evolutionary perspectives in psychology and anthropology, in books by academics including Steven Pinker and Avi Tuschman.

The Google engineer bought a copy of William Farrells controversial 1992 book, The Myth of Male Power, known as the bible of the mens rights movement. He watched The Red Pill, a documentary released last year in which the presenter Cassie Jaye abandons her attachment to feminism after being persuaded by Farrell and other mens rights activists.

But it was Jordan Peterson, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, who seems to have been particularly influential. Notorious in Canada for refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns for students who dont identify as male or female, Peterson has acquired a huge following online by railing against political correctness. Damore watched his YouTube lectures and admired the professor. Hes very good at articulating his thoughts, he says. Which I need to improve at.

Damores memo was a jumble of ideas and proposals for Google, which he argued should de-emphasize empathy and be more accepting of conservative viewpoints. The document contained citations that led to Wikipedia entries and opinion articles, as well as several peer-reviewed psychological papers. His principal argument was about gender. He did not argue that men were better at maths or coding than women, as others have done. Instead, he wrote that men and women on average have different psychological traits, and these might explain why so few women choose engineering, and why so many men rise to the top of Google.

Women, Damore argued, are generally more interested in people rather than things and have more openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics. Both of those factors, he said, could account for why women prefer jobs in social or artistic areas rather than, say, coding software.

Damore also described women as more agreeable and less assertive than men, which he said results in women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading. Men, on the other hand, care less about work-life balance, he wrote, and are more likely to be motivated by status, driving them toward higher-paying, less satisfying jobs. Damore said these differences were exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective and played down the idea that they were the result of cultural or social influences.

He seemed at least somewhat aware he was entering a minefield, stressing he was only talking about average psychological differences: So you cant say anything about an individual I hope its clear that Im not saying that diversity is bad, that Google or society is 100% fair, that we shouldnt try to correct for existing biases, or that minorities have the same experience of those in the majority, he wrote. My larger point is that we have an intolerance for ideas and evidence that dont fit a certain ideology.

Damore emailed his memo to the organisers of Googles diversity meetings in early July. When there was no response, he started sending the document to Googles internal mailing lists and forums, eager for a reaction.

The document spread like wildfire. Some Google employees supported Damores ideas, and some defended his right to voice them. But many staff were simply aghast. Youre a misogynist and a terrible human, one colleague emailed him. I will keep hounding you until one of us is fired. Fuck you.

Leaked posts from Googles internal message boards show that some of Damores most vocal critics were mid-ranking managers. It has cost me at least two days of productivity and anger, and I am not even the target of its bigoted attacks, said one manager, declaring he would never work with Damore again. Another said: I intend to silence these views. They are violently offensive.

Many women who work elsewhere in tech were appalled by Damores memo, written from the heart of an industry that is notoriously male dominated. It came amid a cascade of reports about sexual harassment in Silicon Valley and a class-action lawsuit brought by women employed at Google alleging the company systematically pays women less than men for similar work.

Damores girlfriend was overseas on 5 August, the day she received text messages from friends urging her to click on a link to the tech website Gizmodo, where the memo had been leaked under the headline Heres The Full 10-Page Anti-Diversity Screed Circulating Internally at Google.

Damore had not told her about his document, and her initial impression was that it was horrible. But after reading it a few times, and discussing it with him, her position mellowed; she even came to agree with one or two of his points. She maintains Damore was, for the most part, naive and wrong, but in the process of defending him she lost friends. She believes there was no need for Google to fire him; they could just as easily have taken corrective action.

Google
Google employees and visitors walk through the companys headquarters in Mountain View. Damores memo angered colleagues at the company and beyond. Photograph: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Damore is pursuing legal action against Google and has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. He points out his document was circulating for weeks, but he was only fired after the leak caused a public relations crisis.

Googles chief executive, Sundar Pichai, told staff that Damore was dismissed because parts of his memo violated the companys code of conduct. Our job is to build great products for users that make a difference in their lives, he said. To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.

What do psychologists make of the memo? Richard Lippa of California State University, whose work the engineer cited, tells me it contained a reasonably accurate summary of the research on psychological differences between men and women. I think there are ways of arguing against James Damore, from political viewpoints, for ideological reasons, and you can criticise the science, too, he says. But the immediate response This is fake science I dont think that is doing any of us justice.

Lippa argues there is compelling evidence that women on average tend to be more people-oriented, whereas men are more things-oriented, a difference he believes could be highly relevant to career decisions.

His research is similar to the empathising-systemising theory created by Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge University. He argues the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, whereas the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.

These differences, he says, may explain why more men choose professions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Baron-Cohen also proposes people on the autism spectrum have an extreme male brain.

However, the methodologies and assumptions underlying these claims have proven highly controversial. Many psychologists would take issue with Damores interpretation of personality traits he associates with women, such as agreeableness and neuroticism.

Part of the issue is, hes a software engineer, says Janet Hyde, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin. He attached himself to what is actually a relatively small chunk of the psychological research literature and was unduly influenced by it.

Hyde is the author of a widely cited review of 46 meta-analyses of gender differences, which found that men and women are in fact similar on most, but not all, psychological variables, and concluded overinflated claims of gender differences carry substantial costs in areas such as the workplace. She adds: Theres every reason to think these gender differences in interests are caused by socialisation factors.

Unfortunately for Damore, even some of the academics cited in his memo take issue with the context in which he used their research. Catherine Hakim, a British sociologist based at the thinktank Civitas, says that while her research on gender preference theory was correctly referenced, she feels his attempt to link career outcomes to psychological sex differences was nonsense.

The
Google is known for promoting a culture of psychological safety among its staff. Photograph: Jeff Chiu/AP

Jri Allik, an experimental psychologist from Estonias University of Tartu, says Damore went too far in making extrapolations from his own study into personality variations across countries; it is risky, he says, to link average personality traits to issues like career choices. Besides, Allik adds, the gender differences in his research were very, very small, if not microscopic.

Damore also applied arguments in evolutionary psychology to explain why men outnumber women in senior roles at Google. He cited a paper arguing that men place more importance on the physical attractiveness of a potential mate, while women value a potential partners earning capacity. Hence, he wrote, men may be motivated to seek higher-paying jobs.

Michael Wiederman, a psychologist at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine who conducted that research, tells me that Damore made a reasoned argument about why men could be more attuned to climbing the hierarchy: The idea for evolutionary psychologists is that this is in our cognitive software.

But it is not hard to dismantle this line of argument. Cordelia Fine, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, tells me these ideas fall into the common bias of assuming that whatever we tend to see more often in males is what the job needs. And while it is true, she says, that women tend to attach more importance to a partners resources, there are obvious reasons why. Given that, not so long ago, women could be legally fired when they got married or became pregnant, its hardly surprising that women have historically cared more about a partners wealth. Neither is it clear, Fine says, that any such psychological traits will be set in stone for the rest of time.

Despite authoring two acclaimed books on gender, Fine, a leading feminist science writer, feels torn in many different directions by Damore. She believes his memo made many dubious assumptions and ignored vast swaths of research that show pervasive discrimination against women. But his summary of the differences between the sexes, she says, was more accurate and nuanced than what you sometimes find in the popular literature.

Some of Damores ideas, she adds, are very familiar to me as part of my day-to-day research, and are not seen as especially controversial. So there was something quite extraordinary about someone losing their job for putting forward a view that is part of the scientific debate. And then to be so publicly shamed as well. I felt pretty sorry for him.

I tell Damore what the psychologists told me about his memo: that there is no agreement among the experts about the extent to which men and women have different psychological profiles; nor is there any consensus about whether any differences can be attributed to nature, nurture or a complex mix of the two. The psychologists do not agree on what, if any, impact these differences might have on career outcomes.

Damore bristles when I accuse him of cherry-picking studies that support his view and ignoring the mountains of evidence that contradict it. Even if I presented both sides equally, the very fact that I presented the evil side would have caused controversy. He still stands by the empirical claims in his memo, but regrets using the word neuroticism, a personality measure often used in psychological research but a term he now realizes has derogatory connotations. The psychologists critiques of his memo have definitely added nuance to his views, he adds.

If he could go back in time, would he write the memo differently? Yeah, he replies. Probably.

Damore also seems to question some of the decisions he took in the weeks after he was fired. One of his first moves was to take part in a YouTube interview with Jordan Peterson, the controversial Canadian psychologist who informed much of his thinking. Peterson dominates the conversation in the video, which mostly consists of long monologues from the professor punctuated by nods and short answers from Damore. Peterson urges Damore to take on a public profile to become a spokesperson for the cause. Stick to your damn guns, Peterson tells him. Youre well-spoken, youre quiet, youre convincing, youre rational, you come across as a decent guy. He adds: Theres no reason not to let people see who you are.

Jordan
Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist, talks with James Damore during a YouTube interview. Photograph: screengrab from youtube/screengrab/youtube

Two days later, Damore went to meet Peter Duke, a photographer who had offered him a free professional shoot to replace the poor-quality images being used by the media. Duke brought a T-shirt on which Googles logo had been rearranged to form the word Goolag, which Damore put on; he also posed with a cardboard sign Duke gave him, with the slogan Fired for truth.

It was only later, Damore says, that he discovered Duke is known as the Annie Leibovitz of the alt-right for his sympathetic portraits of far-right activists and conspiracy theorists. Duke circulated the photos on social media under the caption not all heroes wear capes, fuelling a cascade of far-right memes and favourable Breitbart stories. Within a matter of days, the Washington Post had anointed Damore one of the biggest celebrities on the conservative internet. That reputation was compounded when, taking Petersons advice, Damore took part in interviews with several other YouTube stars, variously associated with contrarian, anti-feminist and alt-right movements.

Watching these videos, I notice that Damore has a strange habit: when he disagrees with something an interviewer says, he does not interject but instead moves his head silently from side to side. His girlfriend noticed the same thing, and feels Damores interviewers were often using him to project their own opinions.

Damore concedes now that he wasnt really skilled enough to push back on anything in some interviews. Its frustrating, he adds, that hes now associated with the alt-right when hes more of a centrist. He admits he did not look too deeply into Dukes background when the photos were taken, and asks me not to publish the image of him in a Goolag T-shirt with this article. I can definitely see how it was damaging, but it was a free professional photo shoot and I wasnt really familiar with politics then, he says. I was pretty busy and ignorant.

Was his interview with the alt-right personality Milo Yiannopoulos an error? Its hard to say, he replies. I dont really know what the long-term consequences of any of my actions are.

In September, Damore tweeted: The KKK is horrible and I dont support them in any way, but can we admit that their internal title names are cool, e.g. Grand Wizard? The tweet was accompanied by an online poll in which Damore invited other users to express their views.

There was an immediate outcry amid headlines such as Fired Google Memo Guy Also Has Bad Opinions About KKK. Damore deleted the tweet and acknowledges he badly misjudged how it would be viewed but has not stopped tweeting about controversial issues such as race relations and cultural appropriation. Wary of making another mistake, he now keeps a document of draft tweets that he refines before posting. His girlfriend implores him to show her these drafts, but he does not like to be told what to do and values using his 91,000 followers as a sounding board: I try to leverage my Twitter following to hear other perspectives and correct me when Im wrong.

His tweets are not always provocative; sometimes they are more reflective. Recently, he posted: Laughter is often used to show that even though a norm was broken, things are OK. Another declared: Like a bird, society needs a functional left and right wing. If one is too dominant, our trajectory will be biased and well inevitably fall.

Like many people in technology, and like technology itself, Damore explains a complex social world through seemingly logical systems, patterns and numbers. It can seem like a rational way of thinking but it can also lead to conclusions that lack subtlety or sophistication. The same cognitive patterns underlie the algorithms that power social media, where complicated issues around gender and psychology are reduced to simple shorthand.

Damore believes technology shaped the way he was judged. Journalists and commentators were incentivised to distort facts to generate outrage, he says. Meanwhile, on social media, Damore believes users wanted to hear certainty, causing the most extreme voices to be the loudest.

Platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter can be perilous places for anyone wanting to express a view on a sensitive topic. Damores experience suggests they may involve particular challenges for some people on the autism spectrum.

He does not once, however, use his autism to excuse his actions. He is fiercely resistant to portraying himself as any kind of victim, and says he never informed Google of his autism diagnosis. Im not sure youre expected to, he says, or how I would even do that.

James
James Damore in San Francisco. My biggest flaw and strength may be that I see things very differently than normal, he says. Photograph: Winni Wintermeyer for the Guardian

One in 68 children in the US has autism spectrum disorder, according to federal estimates. And while there are no reliable figures on the prevalence of autism in Silicon Valley, anecdotally, people in the industry say it is common.

Experts are wary of the harmful myth that all people on the spectrum are geniuses, not least when research in the UK indicates only 16% of autistic people are in full-time paid work. But there is no doubt that some autistic people have exceptional abilities and strengths that can attract companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft.

Bryna Siegel, a psychiatrist who runs the not-for-profit Autism Center of Northern California, says she has come across many engineers who have been fired by big tech companies after misunderstanding social cues or unwritten norms in an office.

Employers need to be accommodating when they hire people who are on the autism spectrum, she says. That includes, Siegel says, being more forgiving of autistic employees who inadvertently offend people. Company-wide debates of the kind Google encourages, she adds, can be especially difficult for some autistic people to navigate.

One such discussion appears to have contributed to the downfall of another autistic Google engineer who does not want to be identified because, like Damore, he is still looking for work.

He was fired last year in the wake of a dispute with a female colleague and unrelated comments he made at a company-wide gathering themed around LGBT rights.

The engineer queried the use of non-binary pronouns during the meeting and bluntly questioned whether gender is on a spectrum. After complaints from several employees, the engineer was given a disciplinary warning and banned from future gatherings. He alleges his dismissal is explained by Googles failure to understand how autism causes him to talk or act in ways that others misinterpret. Google declined to comment on his dismissal.

Fellow employees need to be educated that being on the spectrum means well occasionally step on peoples toes, the engineer tells me. Being on the spectrum gives some of us unique experiences that lead us in unusual directions, ideologically. If Google cant handle that, it needs to depoliticise itself.

Damore argues that Googles focus on avoiding micro-aggressions is much harder for someone with autism to follow. But he stops short of saying autistic employees should be given more leniency if they unintentionally offend people at work. I wouldnt necessarily treat someone differently, he explains. But it definitely helps to understand where theyre coming from.

I ask Damore if, looking back over the last few months, he feels that his difficult experience with the memo and social media may be related to being on the spectrum.

Yeah, theres definitely been some self-reflection, he says. Predicting controversies requires predicting what emotional reaction people will have to something. And thats not something that I excel at although Im working on it.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/nov/16/james-damore-google-memo-interview-autism-regrets

Tech has become another wayfor men to oppress women | Lizzie OShea

We act as if technology were neutral but its not. The challenge now is to remove the gender bias, says human rights lawyer and writer Lizzie OShea

Most women in the Bay Area are soft and weak, cosseted and naive, despite their claims of worldliness, and generally full of shit, wrote former Facebook product manager Antonio Garca Martnez in 2016. They have their self-regarding entitlement feminism, and ceaselessly vaunt their independence. But the reality is, come the epidemic plague or foreign invasion, theyd become precisely the sort of useless baggage youd trade for a box of shotgun shells or a jerry can of diesel. This is from his insider account of Silicon Valley, Chaos Monkeys. The book was a bestseller. The New York Times called it an irresistible and indispensable 360-degree guide to the new technology establishment. Anyone who is surprised by the recent revelations of sexism spreading like wildfire through the technology industry has not been paying attention.

When Susan Fowler wrote about her experience of being sexually harassed at Uber, it prompted a chain of events that seemed unimaginable months ago, including an investigation led by former attorney general Eric Holder, and the departure of a number of key members of the companys leadership team. Venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck faced allegations of harassing behaviour, and when he offered an unimpressive denial, companies funded by his firm banded together to condemn his tepidity. He subsequently resigned, and the future of his former firm is unclear. Since then, dozens of women have come forward to reveal the sexist culture in numerous Silicon Valley technology and venture capital firms. It is increasingly clear from these accounts that the problem for women in the tech industry is not a failure to lean in, it is a cultureof harassment and discrimination that makes many of their workplaces unsafe and unpleasant.

At least this issue is being discussed in ways that open up the possibility that it will be addressed. But the problem of sexism in the tech industry goes much deeper and wider. Technological development is undermining the cause of womens equality in other ways.

American academic Melvin Kranzbergs first law of technology tells us that technology is neither inherently good nor bad, nor is it neutral. As a black mirror it reflects the problems that exist in society including the oppression of women. Millions of people bark orders at Alexa, every day, but rarely are we encouraged to wonder why the domestic organiser is voiced by a woman. The entry system for a womens locker room in a gym recently refused entry to a female member because her title was Dr, and it categorised her as male.

But the issue is not only that technology products reflect a backward view of the role of women. They often also appear ignorant or indifferent to womens lived experience. As the internet of things expands, more devices in our homes and on our bodies are collecting data about us and sending it to networks, a process over which we often have little control. This presents profound problems for vulnerable members of society, including survivors of domestic violence. Wearable technology can be hacked, cars and phones can be tracked, and data from a thermostat can reveal whether someone is at home. This potential is frightening for people who have experienced rape, violence or stalking.

Unsurprisingly, technology is used by abusers: in a survey of domestic violence services organisations, 97% reported that the survivors who use them have experienced harassment, monitoring, and threats by abusers through the misuse of technology. This often happens on phones, but 60% of those surveyed also reported that abusers have spied or eavesdropped on the survivor or children using other forms of technology, including toys and other gifts. Many shelters have resorted to banning the use of Facebook because of fears about revealing information about their location to stalkers. There are ways to make devices give control to users and limit the capacity for abuse. But there is little evidence that this has been a priority for the technology industry.

Products that are more responsive to the needs of women would be a great start. But we should also be thinking bigger: we must avoid reproducing sexism in system design. The word-embedding models used in things like conversation bots and word searches provide an instructive example. These models operate by feeding huge amounts of text into a computer so it learns how words relate to each other in space. It is based on the premise that words which appear near each other in texts share meaning. These spatial relationships are used in natural language-processing so that computers can engage with us conversationally. By reading a lot of text, a computer can learn that Paris is to France as Tokyo is to Japan. It develops a dictionary by association.

But this can create problems when the world is not exactly as it ought to be. For instance, researchers have experimented with one of these word-embedding models, Word2vec, a popular and freely available model trained on three million words from Google News. They found that it produces highly gendered analogies. For instance, when asked Man is to woman as computer programmer is to ?, the model will answer homemaker. Or for father is to mother as doctor is to ?, the answer is nurse. Of course the model reflects a certain reality: it is true that there are more male computer programmers, and nurses are more often women. But this bias, reflecting social discrimination, will now be reproduced and reinforced when we engage with computers using natural language that relies on Word2vec. It is not hard to imagine how this model could also be racially biased, or biased against other groups.

These biases can be amplified duringthe process of language learning. As the MIT Technology Review points out: If the phrase computer programmer is more closely associated with men than women, then a search for theterm computer programmer CVs might rank men more highly than women. When this kind of language learning has applications across fields including medicine, education, employment, policymaking and criminal justice, it is not hard to see how much damage such biases can cause.

Removing such gender bias is a challenge, in part because the problem is inherently political: Word2vec entrenches the world as it is, rather thanwhat it could or should be. But if we are to alter the models to reflect aspirations, how do we decide what kind of world we want to see?

Digital technology offers myriad waysto put these understandings to work. It is not bad, but we have to challenge the presumption that it is neutral. Its potential is being explored in ways that are sometimes promising, often frightening and amazing. To make the most of this moment, we need to imagine a future without the oppressions of the past. We need to allow women to reach their potential in workplaces where they feel safe and respected. But we also need to look into the black mirror of technology and find the cracks of light shining through.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/07/technology-sexist-society-even-worse-women-potential

Move Over, CodersPhysicists Will Soon Rule Silicon Valley

It’s a bad time to be a physicist.

At least, thats what Oscar Boykin says. He majored in physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology and in 2002 he finished a physics PhD at UCLA. But four years ago, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland discovered the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle first predicted in the 1960s. As Boykin points out, everyone expected it. The Higgs didn’t mess with the theoretical models of the universe. It didn’t change anything or give physcists anything new to strive for. “Physicists are excited when there’s something wrong with physics, and we’re in a situation now where there’s not a lot that’s wrong,” he says. “It’s a disheartening place for a physicist to be in.” Plus, the pay isn’t too good.

Boykin is no longer a physicist. He’s a Silicon Valley software engineer. And it’s a very good time to be one of those.

Boykin works at Stripe, a $9-billion startup that helps businesses accept payments online. He helps build and operate software systems that collect data from across the company’s services, and he works to predict the future of these services, including when, where, and how the fraudulent transactions will come. As a physicist, he’s ideally suited to the job, which requires both extreme math and abstract thought. And yet, unlike a physicist, he’s working in a field that now offers endless challenges and possibilities. Plus, the pay is great.

If physics and software engineering were subatomic particles, Silicon Valley has turned into the place where the fields collide. Boykin works with three other physicists at Stripe. In December, when General Electric acquired the machine learning startup Wise.io, CEO Jeff Immelt boasted that he had just grabbed a company packed with physicists, most notably UC Berkeley astrophysicist Joshua Bloom. The open source machine learning software H20, used by 70,000 data scientists across the globe, was built with help from Swiss physicist Arno Candel, who once worked at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. Vijay Narayanan, Microsoft’s head of data science, is an astrophysicist, and several other physicists work under him.

Its not on purpose, exactly. “We didn’t go into the physics kindergarten and steal a basket of children,” says Stripe president and co-founder John Collison. “It just happened.” And it’s happening across Silicon Valley. Because structurally and technologically, the things that just about every internet company needs to do are more and more suited to the skill set of a physicist.

The Naturals

Of course, physicists have played a role in computer technology since its earliest days, just as they’ve played a role in so many other fields. John Mauchly, who helped design the ENIAC, one of the earliest computers, was a physicist. Dennis Ritchie, the father of the C programming language, was too.

But this is a particularly ripe moment for physicists in computer tech, thanks to the rise of machine learning, where machines learn tasks by analyzing vast amounts of data. This new wave of data science and AI is something that suits physicists right down to their socks.

Among other things, the industry has embraced neural networks, software that aims to mimic the structure of the human brain. But these neural networks are really just math on an enormous scale, mostly linear algebra and probability theory. Computer scientists aren’t necessarily trained in these areas, but physicists are. “The only thing that is really new to physicists is learning how to optimize these neural networks, training them, but that’s relatively straightforward,” Boykin says. “One technique is called Newton’s method. Newton the physicist, not some other Newton.”

Chris Bishop, who heads Microsoft’s Cambridge research lab, felt the same way thirty years ago, when deep neural networks first started to show promise in the academic world. That’s what led him from physics into machine learning. “There is something very natural about a physicist going into machine learning,” he says, “more natural than a computer scientist.”

The Challenge Space

Ten years ago, Boykin says, so many of his old physics pals were moving into the financial world. That same flavor of mathematics was also enormously useful on Wall Street as a way of predicting where the markets would go. One key method was The Black-Scholes Equation, a means of determining the value of a financial derivative. But Black-Scholes helped foment the great crash of 2008, and now, Boykin and others physicists say that far more of their colleagues are moving into data science and other kinds of computer tech.

Earlier this decade, physicists arrived at the top tech companies to help build so-called Big Data software, systems that juggle data across hundreds or even thousands of machines. At Twitter, Boykin helped build one called Summingbird, and three guys who met in the physics department at MIT built similar software at a startup called Cloudant. Physicists know how to handle data—at MIT, Cloudant’s founders handled massive datasets from the the Large Hadron Collider—and building these enormously complex systems requires its own breed of abstract thought. Then, once these systems were built, so many physicists have helped use the data they harnessed.

In the early days of Google, one of the key people building the massively distributed systems in the companys engine room was Yonatan Zunger, who has a PhD in string theory from Stanford. And when Kevin Scott joined the Google’s ads team, charged with grabbing data from across Google and using it to predict which ads were most likely to get the most clicks, he hired countless physicists. Unlike many computer scientists, they were suited to the very experimental nature of machine learning. “It was almost like lab science,” says Scott, now chief technology officer at LinkedIn.

Now that Big Data software is commonplace—Stripe uses an open source version of what Boykin helped build at Twitter—its helping machine learning models drive predictions inside so many other companies. That provides physicists with any even wider avenue into the Silicon Valley. At Stripe, Boykin’s team also includes Roban Kramer (physics PhD, Columbia), Christian Anderson (physics master’s, Harvard), and Kelley Rivoire (physics bachelor’s, MIT). They come because they’re suited to the work. And they come because of the money. As Boykin says: “The salaries in tech are arguably absurd.” But they also come because there are so many hard problems to solve.

Anderson left Harvard before getting his PhD because he came to view the field much as Boykin does—as an intellectual pursuit of diminishing returns. But that’s not the case on the internet. “Implicit in ‘the internet’ is the scope, the coverage of it,” Anderson says. “It makes opportunities much greater, but it also enriches the challenge space, the problem space. There is intellectual upside.”

The Future

Today, physicists are moving into Silicon Valley companies. But in the years come, a similar phenomenon will spread much further. Machine learning will change not only how the world analyzes data but how it builds software. Neural networks are already reinventing image recognition, speech recognition, machine translation, and the very nature of software interfaces. As Microsofts Chris Bishop says, software engineering is moving from handcrafted code based on logic to machine learning models based on probability and uncertainty. Companies like Google and Facebook are beginning to retrain their engineers in this new way of thinking. Eventually, the rest of the computing world will follow suit.

In other words, all the physicists pushing into the realm of the Silicon Valley engineer is a sign of a much bigger change to come. Soon, all the Silicon Valley engineers will push into the realm of the physicist.

Read more: https://www.wired.com/2017/01/move-coders-physicists-will-soon-rule-silicon-valley/